“It’s genetic” is a common explanation given when describing a person’s health status. Since the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, there’s been a heightened awareness of genetics affecting our risk for conditions like heart disease. Some people opt to determine their risk by undergoing testing to identify if they carry specific genes for various diseases. This has led to growing research in the field of epigenetics, the study of how our lifestyle choices can affect genes turning “on” and “off.” These lifestyle choices include not smoking, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, drinking alcohol in moderation, if at all, and managing stress.
Results of a “Favorable” Lifestyle
A massive National Institutes of Health (NIH) study involving 55,685 participants scrutinized how genes and lifestyle choices affect heart disease risk. Researchers grouped the participants into two categories: either living a favorable or an unfavorable lifestyle. Now, you’re likely wondering how a favorable lifestyle was defined. In this study, the term was based on four healthy lifestyle factors adapted from the strategic goals of the American Heart Association (AHA). They included:
No current smoking
No obesity (BMI <30) - To calculate your BMI, take your weight in kilograms divided by the square of your height in meters. Or, skip the math and enter your height and weight here: [BMI Calculator](https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/BMI/bmicalc.htm)
Physical activity at least once weekly
Follow a healthy diet pattern - This includes adherence to at least half of the following characteristics:
MORE fruits, nuts, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and dairy products
LESS refined grains, processed meats, unprocessed red meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, trans fats, and sodium.
The favorable lifestyle participants with high genetic risk for heart disease were associated with nearly a 50% lower risk of heart disease compared to those with an unfavorable lifestyle. The authors of this study concluded that inherited DNA and lifestyle choices contribute independently to one’s risk of heart disease.
Doomed for Premature Heart Disease?
If you’re still not convinced and feel like heart disease at an early age is inevitable due to your family history, think again. Premature heart disease is defined as being diagnosed before the age of 50. A recent study published in the European Society of Cardiology assessed five modifiable risk factors (physical inactivity, smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol) in relation to patients with premature heart disease. This study found that the probability of heart disease was 3, 7, and 24 times higher with 1, 2, and 3 or more modifiable risk factors, respectively. The more risk factors and the risk dramatically increases!
Bottom Line: You are not doomed if heart disease runs in your family. Lifestyle choices make a big difference. In fact, for most people, a healthy lifestyle trumps inherited risk. As you sit down to your next healthy meal or lace up your shoes for a walk, reflect on the positive impact you’re having on your heart health!
DNA does not have to be destiny!